LAS VEGAS – Car buyers typically give Findlay Auto Group’s 25 dealerships high marks, but that doesn’t stop the chain’s CEO Tyler Corder from knocking how auto makers set up satisfaction surveys.

“Our scores are good across the board, but to be blunt, the CSI (customer-satisfaction index) scores can be totally inaccurate,” he says.

Some people are put off by the seemingly endless questions surveys ask. “A lot of people don’t complete them because of their length,” Corder says at the annual F&I Conference and Expo here. “One brand asks 45 questions. Our managers say the return rate is 20%.”

Dealerships can boost response rates by offering customer inducements not only to mail back surveys but also to give stores high marks.

But that’s gaming the system, says Corder whose dealership group is based in Henderson, NV. “Dealer incentives are based on good satisfaction scores. Sometimes, manipulation happens.”

He tells of another ploy: If a dealership knows a customer is unhappy, a staffer will intentionally fill in a wrong address for a car buyer on paperwork sent to the auto maker. “The customer ends up not getting the survey,” he says. “We don’t do that, but it’s done.”

Corder takes issue with many auto makers who consider a dealership as failing if a customer gives it anything other than top-box survey scores. “Dealers get no credit for a response unless the customer checks off ‘completely satisfied.’ How in the world did ‘very satisfied’ become bad?”

He has approached auto makers about his dissatisfaction with satisfaction scores. “They have told me that it’s the best system they have.”

When Alan Starling was chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. in 2003, he spearheaded an effort to overhaul satisfaction surveys. His griped they were too long, asked loaded questions and produced skewed results that could make good dealers look bad.

For example, Starling said in an earlier interview that many of his customers were senior citizens who took their time buying a car.

“They’d spend all morning at the dealership,” he says. “Sometimes we’d take them out to lunch. Then they got a survey asking how long the buying process took. They’d put down so many hours, and the auto maker would get mad at us.” 

Some auto makers were open to the NADA’s complaints of flawed surveys. Others were less receptive. “They said, you do your knitting, we’ll do ours,” Starling said.

Auto makers such as Chrysler ultimately streamlined their surveys.

“And to its credit, Chrysler says it will not tie dealer cash incentives to surveys,” Corder says, adding General Motors has “sort of got off top-box scoring.”

He recommends a survey zero in on two issues: 1. Are you satisfied with this dealership? 2. Would you recommend it?

Other dealers say a pared-down survey should fundamentally ask: 1. Would you buy from this dealership again? 2. Would you return to this dealership for service?    

The benefit of keeping it concise is that auto makers would get high response rates, Corder says. “And other than those two things, what else do you want to know?”    

Most consumers like picking out cars, he says. They are less enamored with the time it can take, price negotiations and the finance-and-insurance process.

“F&I has more bearing on CSI than any other dealership department,” he says. “It is most likely to create customer dissatisfaction.”

That’s in part because the final stage of a car purchase is a customer’s visit to the F&I office. If things go badly there, it can offset the entire car-buying experience, even if all went well until then.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com